Fine tuning the opening sentence of your personal statement is a task most students dread, particularly because so much attention is given to the opening sentence as it should catch the reader’s attention. You’re told that there needs to be a wow factor involved and that your sentence should set the tone and quality of the rest of the personal statement. No pressure, eh?
In fact, writing a strong opening sentence is relevant to more than just university applicants. You'll also need a strong opening statement for applying for an apprenticeship or a school leaver scheme so sorry guys, you’re not off the hook.
We’re not going to lie — the opening sentence is pretty important, but it’s also important that the personal statement doesn’t go downhill from there. Think of your personal statement like a football team — even if you have the best goal scorer in the world, if you have a dodgy defence or mildly-interested midfield, it’s not a great recipe for success.
Overused Opening Sentences
Whatever you do with your opening sentence, make sure you use something different to the most overused statements.
“But how do I know which opening sentences are the most overused?” I hear you cry. Well, we did some research and found an article by UCAS that listed the most overused opening sentences. Here they are:
1. From a young age I have (always) been [interested in/fascinated by]… (used 1,779 times)
2. For as long as I can remember I have… (used 1,451 times)
3. I am applying for this course because… (used 1,370 times)
4. I have always been interested in… (used 927 times)
5. Throughout my life I have always enjoyed… (used 310 times)
6. Reflecting on my educational experiences… (used 257 times)
7. Nursing is a very challenging and demanding [career/profession/course]… (used 211 times)
8. Academically, I have always been… (used 168 times)
9. I have always wanted to pursue a career in… (used 160 times)
10. I have always been passionate about… (used 160 times)
11. Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world… (used 148 times)
The (over)use of the quote from Nelson Mandela about “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” is particularly cringe worthy — if you’re going to include a quote, make sure it’s more than just a popular quote that you once saw on Instagram. Show that you’ve done some reading around the subject and be prepared to properly explain why you like a particular quote.
Writing Your Opening Sentence
Aside from avoiding overused quotes and words such as ‘passionate’ or ‘deeply fascinated’, we recommend being original and referring to personal experiences as a way to draw attention.
For example, if you were writing a personal statement for a History course, you could open with something like, “Making an evacuation suitcase at the age of nine made me realise for the first time how historical events had affected real people.”
Not only does this draw on personal experience and highlight your knowledge of a certain area of history, it also provides you with an opening to elaborate upon your interest in social history. If you already know what graduate job or scheme you want to pursue after university, then you can further relate your opening anecdote to your future plans.
Don’t sit in front of a blank page for ages and furiously try to come up with the perfect opening sentence. If you’re stuck on your opening sentence, then perhaps try writing it last. After all, writing the rest of your personal statement will allow you to see the finished piece before adding the token opening sentence. The best opening sentences refer to your experiences, so think hard about what stands out in your memories in regards to your relationship with your chosen subject. Jot them down and then make one of these memories attention grabbing for someone who doesn’t know you.
Opening sentences are tricky, but they don’t make or break a personal statement. For more information on how to write a personal statement, check out these articles:
When planning your UCAS personal statement it is sometimes helpful to do an outline to make sure that each paragraph has a specific purpose. This helps you to get an overview of the whole statement. It also makes the job of linking paragraphs together easier.
Remember that statements are usually read quickly and the first impressions given by your words really do count.
Although each statement is individual, we know that admissions tutors are looking for certain things when they read a personal statement. In particular they are looking for a clear motivation statement in the opening paragraphs. The question 'Why do you want to read this subject?' should get a clear answer. They are also looking for specific evidence to back up the motivation statement. And they are looking for legible, interesting and well-written statements.
You do not need to come across as an expert in your chosen subject! Universities are looking for enquiring and capable students with good all-round skills who will benefit from the opportunity to study at an advanced level. They are looking for people who will enjoy independent research and who enjoy learning.
Here is a suggested outline for a personal statement which you might like to use and adapt to your own situation.
Paragraph One: Motivation for Course Choice
* Answer clearly the question 'Why do you want to read this subject?'
* Use a direct motivation statement ('I would like to study x because...') or a biographical statement ('My interest in x began...' or 'I have had a strong interest in x since...'). If you choose the latter, keep it brief! Don't tell your life story!
* Give a clear sense of your current interests and how you would like to develop them. If you have career plans, mention them, but this is not essential. You should, however, present yourself as a person looking to the future. You need to be on an 'upward learning curve'.
* Avoid writing things which defer to the school's opinion of you - 'My teachers tell me I am good at physics' or 'My high grades in maths have spurred me to continue study in this area'. Your application will show your predicted grades and (hopefully) a good teacher's reference. The PS is to show your specific interests, aims and achievements.
* If you are applying to do joint honours (eg History and Psychology) you need to say something about each subject and show how they can be linked (eg knowledge of individual psychology can help us in the study of history).
* If you do not know why you want to read a particular subject, you need to do some serious thinking now. Research courses in the careers library and on the internet, ask friends and family to interview you about your interests, write a personal memo to yourself with a list of things you like/dislike.
Paragraph Two: Academic Interests and Achievements
* Answer the questions that admissions officers are likely to ask about your academic suitability: 'What have you done so far that is relevant to your course choice?' and 'What specific academic accomplishments or skills or interests do you have?'
* Use your extended essay or other school projects to show what you have done in terms of research. Give some idea of work you have done which you would like to pursue further. The IB extended essay is excellent preparation for university-type work - show that you have taken the opportunity (even if you are still working on it at the moment).
* Mention any wider reading outside the syllabus that you have done or specific areas of your chosen subject that interest you.
* Mention any achievements or courses or trips that are relevant to your course choice.
* If you are applying to read medicine or veterinary science, mention any work experience you have done.
* If you are applying to read computer science, give some idea of your practical skills and knowledge and mention the platforms you are familiar with.
* Do you have any particular IT skills - web design? blogging? digital photography?
* If you speak two or more languages, mention them, and any advantages you feel you have gained from living in a multicultural/international background. If you can, relate this to your course choice. This aspect could also go in the following paragraph.
* Note: you do not need to list your IB subjects or describe the IB curriculum.
Paragraph Three: Important Background Experiences
* Choose two or three experiences which are not directly related to your academic work but which have contributed to your personality and, if possible, relate them to your course choice.
* Reflect on these experiences by describing what you have learned from them. Do not just give a list! It is better to describe one or two formative experiences with some interesting details rather then give a comprehensive list. Concentrate on experiences which have taught you something - eg. about leadership and responsibility, communication, or social problems.
* Use experiences of participation or organisation such as: MUN and debating; charity work and fundraising; CAS and volunteer work; foreign trips (eg Tanzania?); work experience; music and drama; community work; environmental work; school council; active group membership; language learning; designing a website or blog; sport.
Paragraph Four: Extra-curricular
* Include here things which you did not mention in the previous paragraph. Music, sports, positions held are good examples. Add anything which is not central to your application but which adds to the overall impression and makes you sound like an active and well-rounded person. Any individual details ('I am currently reading political biographies in my spare time')works well. Again, don't give a long list but try to group related things together in sentences.
Paragraph Five: Restate Motivation, Looking Forward
* A short final paragraph - two sentences is enough - should return the reader to the motivation statement at the beginning. Instead of just repeating it, try to add some idea of your future ambitions and what challenges at university you are looking forward to. As with the whole statement, try to be specific to your own situation rather than use cliches. Avoid saying things that everyone would say ('I am looking forward to the social life at university'). Communicate your passion for your chosen subject.
* If you are taking a gap year, explain what you are planning to do and if possible how it relates to your course choice. If you have no specific plans, think of something to justify the year. It could be travel, work experience, learning a language.